Grandma’s Garden

Grandma’s garden, 1942

Perhaps because I love to cook, or perhaps because I recall stories from my parents’ upbringing, I have been wondering lately about my family’s daily bread, oh, say, 75 years ago. I blame the photo above. What exactly did they eat? How was cooking different in those years? Did they cook for health? What about supply?

Dad and mom both recall that nearly everyone had a garden, that home-canned food was a way of life. Along with everything else, food had to stretch. Mom–one of six children–recalls oatmeal and lots and lots of zucchini–neither of which, to date, she’ll touch. Dad–an only child–reminisced of cherry and apple trees, that berries were abundant.

The garden up there belonged to my grandma Lalla, her mother, Orah, and my father. They shared food, however, with the rest of the family. Bertha, my great aunt, saved letters written by her mother Orah between 1940 and 1952. They describe, much to my delight, a bit about the grub.

Sisters: Lalla, Hazel, Bertha

What did they eat in the 40s when dad and mom were growing up? What was in the garden? Basically, I want to know every detail, but let’s start with the budget. We are lucky. I found spreadsheets.

Spreadsheet #1 (June, 1942): Shoes-$7.15, Insurance-$3.25, Bus-$0.20, Meat-$0.62, Food-$1.75. The car cost $26.58, whatever that entailed.

Idea of the budget
Spreadsheet #1

Spreadsheet #2 (June, 1942): Bus fare-$0.20, Paper Card-$0.15, Food-$1.22, Merle-$1.03, Stamp-$0.08, P.O. Box-$0.75, George Suit-$1.03 for a grand total of $5.45. (I don’t know who did the math. I get $4.46. I could have saved them $0.99).

1942 spreadsheet
Spreadsheet #2

I was unaware of the family’s precarious financial situation, not surprising given the time. Orah’s letters reveal tremendous strain between her and Lalla. Finances were no exception.

Orah mentioned receiving monthly checks. She lost her husband in 1924, but did not start receiving funds until 1940. [See below, history of social security checks (1,2)]. Lalla was an accountant. She also opened their home to female renters between 1941-1945. Resources appeared to be Lalla’s paycheck and rent money. It wasn’t much.

They ate what they grew. Butter was hard to come by, although Bertha, who lived on a farm, made her own and sold what she didn’t keep for personal consumption. Bacon was expensive at $0.75/lb. Canning was necessary, but I was surprised at the variety.

Spreadsheet #3 (July, 1942): blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, salmon berries, cherries, pickles, rhubarb, peas, carrots, apricots, peaches, pears, string beans, from one year.

Spreadsheet #3

Grandma Lalla made watermelon pickles when we were kids. They are made from the rind. They are delicious. Since my sister and I loved them, imagine my delight when I recently came across the reference in Orah’s letter below.

Our beloved watermelon pickles

April 2015_photo of watermelon pickles

Apparently, the recipe has Germanic origins (3), Orah’s parents’ birthplace. Likely, the recipe immigrated as well. Below are two modern day recipes (4,5) that may approximate my great grandmother’s recipe.

The pickles in the photo look exactly as I remember. I might have to experiment this summer.

Dad recalled having fried green tomatoes, as did mom. They also mentioned mincemeat as a favorite. Aunt Hazel apparently made a wicked green tomato mincemeat (6). It was an actual recipe. Who knew?

Hazel’s green tomato mincemeat, 1943
April 2015_Green-Tomato-Mincemeat-spoon-1
Green tomato mincemeat
Green tomato mincemeat, 1943

As far as grandma’s garden, I believe I now have a pretty good idea of what they ate and why; rationing and cost were prominent factors. A garden was necessary. Some items such as sugar were not always available. Fruit was canned. Soups and stews were common entrees. Eggs were eaten more often than not as they were cheaper than meat. Apple jelly was made from summer apples. Desserts were pies and cobblers. Sugarless recipes appeared in 40s cuisine, not for health reasons, but because of war-time availability. Creativity was necessary.

I recall the tub of bacon fat on the back of grandma’s stove. No wonder we never came away from her table unsatisfied. This is grandma’s kitchen, with me at the table and mom at the sink.

PIX_Haggie kitchen - Copy
Grandma’s kitchen, 1965

It appears it was about survival, not health. Regardless, the diet appears to have been fairly healthy, and surprisingly familiar. Given that Orah required insulin, I hoped to read more about diet, possibly her doctor’s recommendations, in her letters. I found next to nothing. She definitely had preferences, often walking to town for food rather than eat what was in the house. She frequently purchased candy. Orah was not sedentary or obese, two factors now believed to contribute more to diabetes than actual foods (7).

I’ve been curious whether diet a few generations back affects current health, specifically with respect to diabetes. Does what great grandma ate affect my health? How do we explain the apparent generation skip? The adage that diabetes runs in families but skips a generation is absolutely true in our family–so far. Orah had diabetes as did her grandson (dad). It skipped my grandma, my sister and I. The research does not support this as a rule, however (8).

Peas, Cilantro, Pumpkin, Cukes

We are fortunate that we are able to grow quite a bit in our backyard. Apples and berries line the orchard. In our small greenhouse at right, the first to sprout were peas, pumpkin, cukes, and cilantro. Beets and spinach are coming. I planted oregano, basil, mint, and lavender from seed, and the onions, peppers, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, and lettuce are in the raised beds. Yellow squash and cantaloupe have yet to make an appearance. Corn, in two week intervals, comes later.

While I can’t tell what is growing in grandma’s garden above, looking at my list compared to grandma’s, it seems the two are not that different. Maybe how foods were prepared, or costs; certainly, supply due to the war was a factor. Yet, it seems many of the foods are the same, that “grandma’s garden” is here, right out back. I’m ready, for when the time comes.

(1,2) Social Security became law in 1935, taxes were collected initially in 1937, and regular payments began in 1940. “Under the 1935 law, what we now think of as Social Security only paid retirement benefits to the primary worker. A 1939 change in the law added survivors benefits and benefits for the retiree’s spouse and children. In 1956 disability benefits were added” (

(3, 4);

(5, 6);

(7, 8) Genetics and Diabetes: What’s Your Risk? Joslin Diabetes Center. 2015.

Just for fun:

Here are some family recipes. Aunt Bertha sent them to me after our last visit. Some were hers, some belonged to her sister Hazel, and one belonged to grandma.

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Reflection: Do you have old family recipes? Are they part of your current diet? Are they what you would consider food for health? How has eating changed in your family?

NEXT: I have yet to decide. Stay tuned.

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